Saturday, March 06, 2010

Remembrance of pianos past

Years ago, when I was married to my first wife, we came across a little museum in western Pennsylvania -- I think it was just west of Franklin -- full of jukeboxes and music boxes. It turned out that a small-scale farmer and his wife were fascinated with them and started collecting, and after a while they had more than they could keep in the barn. So they built a building and shared their obsession with others. I don't remember if they charged a small fee or had a voluntary donation box at the door, but whatever we paid it was worth it. Hundreds of jukeboxes and music boxes, of every shape and size, decorated in a vast variety of ways. Who knew?

It turns out, as this Slate story demonstrates, that people with obsessions who end up opening private museums are all over the country. Michael Frederick and his wife bought an 1830-era British Stodart piano in 1976 and he restored it -- and thus began an obsession. His private museum is in Ashburnham in mid-Massachusetts. It has 24 pianos, all kept in concert-ready shape, including names like Graf, Boesendorfer, Streicher, Pleyel, Bluthner, some of whom aren't making pianos any more. The phenomenon allows Jan Swofford to muse on the variety of pianos past -- a variety of personality of instruments we may have lost even as our standardized modern pianos are in some ways technologically superior and on balance better. He reminds us that Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Chopin, etc., all had different pianos they used for compsition, and in some sense the pianos are co-creators -- and unless we hear compositions played on the pianos of the era we aren't hearing the music as the composers heard it.

Click on the article. It includes excerpts of pieces played on pianos of different eras to demonstrate just how different they sound.

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